Determined to make more direct contact with their son, they made an appointment to see Robert Brown, a British man who staged events across the globe to communicate with spirits. He also held private meetings. He was to be in New York that fall.
In September, Dave survived two heart attacks. A month after bypass surgery, they rode Amtrak to see Brown. The author dazzled them with details about Nick, which they believed were personal and intimate and true. How could he know these things? As the session was ending, Brown added: Your son wants me to tell you that the show must go on.
Joanne and Dave were thunderstruck. There seemed no earthly way Brown could have known Nick’s final words to his father, except from Nick? They left the appointment elated and utterly convinced their son is a living spirit. They strolled Manhattan, laughing and weeping, until landing at a deli, where they ate like ravenous castaways.
• • •
Melanie’s mother, Chris, walked her daughter slowly through the darkened house, trying to take away the pain. The hospital had sent Melanie home early. Chris was a nurse and convinced them she could handle the dreadful, painstaking work of changing bandages and cutting away decaying skin. But when the morphine wore off, the pain became a livid scream inside Melanie’s body, radiating from nowhere and everywhere.
Chris led her daughter, whispering, crying with her. It would be OK. One day, it would be OK.
Chris had to try to believe that, too. She had stayed above water while taking care of Melanie in the hospital, was able to keep at bay the almost certain death of her son. But then she came home to see Mark’s car in front of the house, towed from The Station, and finally it was real. Her grief swallowed her, and she had to be carried into the house.
She ached for her daughter now, needed to take care of her. And so they shuffled through the house, down the corridor bridging the bedrooms, around the family room, lap after lap until the sun came up.
They would get stronger pills for Melanie’s pain, but they didn’t help with the agonizing reality crystalizing in her head. Her brother and fiance were gone. When she had let go of his hand in the club, she had a flash that it might be forever. And now it plainly was.
She woke mornings, replaying the moment. She loathed herself for getting out so easily, berated herself for not finding John and Mark in the choking, scorching madness and leading them out. She spoke aloud to Mark, asking from his bed if he could hear her.
On the other side of the wall, Chris would wake from restless sleep and realize all over again that her son was dead, the blow knocking the wind out of her each time. But Melanie needed her, and she would force herself from bed.
They could fill a day treating and dressing the burns and doing it again a few hours later, Melanie leaning over their kitchen table, beneath a big framed photograph of her and Mark in high school. Moving slowly, Chris would lift the yellowish-white parts of each blister with forceps and snip away with scissors. She would slather on antibiotic cream and skin-loosening ointment, bandage Melanie’s back, wrap her hands and fingers with gauze.
Chris took comfort in a sweater of Mark’s, inhaling the fading scent of his once-heavy cologne. Sometimes, she went out to the site of the fire. She thought maybe she could feel his presence in the place where he last lived. She bought bags of tea candles and lit them, retreated to her car to watch them flicker.
She and Melanie talked, replaying the fire, trading stories about the boys. How John, in a wheelchair then, had rolled up to Melanie that first week in school, bowed, kissed her hand. How Mark couldn’t pass anyone he loved without reaching out to pat or hug them, how even his friends learned to kiss and hug his parents goodbye.
And as Chris had done in the hospital, she stood over the sink and kneaded her fingers through Melanie’s hair, lathering, rinsing, releasing more of that horrible stench. It was a weekly ritual, the smell persisting, until Melanie could stand it no more and cut off her hair.
• • •
As time passed, Joanne and Dave say, Nick sent signs every day. Each brought a feeling of relief, like when any child checks in with his parents.
“Thanks for checking in, Nick,” Joanne says out loud. “I love you.”
The family trained itself to refer to Nick in the present tense.
Nick is, not was.
Sometimes one of them slips up with the past tense. The offender will apologize, “Sorry, Nick!”
In 2004, nearly a year after the fire, the family celebrated Nick’s birthday at Chelo’s restaurant. They saved an empty seat at the long table for the birthday boy. That was where they told the wait staff to put the cake, and the staff and the family all sang Happy Birthday.Continued...